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The Uncontained Center: Mental Illness and Art
May 21, 2017
In less than two weeks, I am going to be sitting in front of a live audience and video cameras talking with Elyn Saks and Kazuki Takizawa, two people that intimidate the heck out of me. Elyn is an esteemed legal scholar and mental health rock star, demonstrating in the most public way possible that people living with schizophrenia can achieve greatness. Kazuki is an established artist with a busy schedule of residencies around the country. He gave an incredibly moving talk about his work at Craft in America yesterday. Kazuki shared images of a piece he created in art school in Hawaii when he was really struggling with suicidal thoughts. He created a brilliant blue-clear glass egg the size of an uncut coconut and through it from a bridge to the pavement below, then collected the shared and glued it back together into a glass egg. Kazuki teared up while talking about how the glass could be put back together but was forever altered by the experience.
Two insanely prolific creators who devote much if not most of their time to their craft and an opportunity to learn something from them about mental illness and art. Probably it is best to try to come up with some kind of definition for these two words that seem so obvious until you actually think about it. What is art? What is mental illness? As I keep babbling on about elsewhere, I started thinking about mental illness as unwanted mental experiences that won’t go away just because we want them to. Diagnosis of mental illness combines this plus duration and intensity. Similarly, I think of art as anything that would not have existed if not created by the artist. This is probably the broadest definition possible, but I also thin it honors the human quality of creation or creativity. Our ability to make something unique and intentional is one of the defining traits of the human brain, the superiority we had over the much stronger Neanderthals, 40,000 years ago. They created stone tools but no stone symbols or sculptures. Humans created stone carvings that were more than just functional. Depending on where we are headed as a species and planet, it all started with the human ability to imagine something that did not exist and make it real.
The connection between art and mental illness has been a part of the conversation since at least the Renaissance, when actors were considered debauched and mad. Is it the obsessiveness? To create prolifically enough takes considerable time and drive with little immediate reward or, in many cases, personal support from others. Is it the idea of the tortured artist? Artists are believed to experience and sometimes express intense emotions in the course of their work, and this is indeed true for many of the artists that I know, which is often part of the draw of the work more than a downside. If we cannot express our emotions, we act them out. Maybe it is the narcissistic belief in the importance of one’s work that is truly the connection between art and mental illness.
These are all examples of the common knowledge interplay between art and mental illness, the throw away lines. I kind of wonder if there might be a certain amount of jealousy and fear being expressed in that belief that artists must be mentally ill. Art represents freedom, it is a direct of it. There is a powerful human tendency to want to hide and be told what to do, even while we think we are expressing our freedom. I like Coke over Pepsi. Do you now? A person who creates something new and different had the bravery to act out his or her creativity in the world. People do not like to feel jealous so there might just be an inclination to label those who do express their freedom through art as crazy to avoid feeling envious. On the other hand, the existentialists would say that facing our freedom is fundamentally terrifying, because it means facing the fact that we create our own reactions to the world around us, even if we can’t control our environment. Responsibility is scary. And I am going to be responsible for keeping the conversation going with two very creative people, and I am afraid.